At the risk of RUINING EVERYTHING, consider this a somewhat cautious announcement that summer is now finally upon us. The weather is (steadily) improving, the trails are (sort of) drying out, and the over-ripened muddy puddles of a brutally long winter are (mostly) making a slow retreat from our favourite singletrack.
I realise I’ve just gone ahead and jinxed all of us, but I’m doing my best to set the scene for this review, so just go with it. And you can blame me when it starts raining again next week.
With the arrival of longer evenings and lighter mornings also comes the flurry of mountain bike races and events. Whether it’s a 6, 12 or 24-hour race, a long distance marathon event, or the local club dirt crit series that you’ve got on your radar, the race season is well and truly here for those of us who have finally emerged from our winter hibernation.
If you’ve signed up to a race this season, you’ll no doubt be eyeing up those extra hours in the day to get in some additional training. You’ll be getting the bike prepped by taking off those mud-specific tyres, and fitting on nice fast-rolling rubber in preparation for dusty hardpack trails (well, one can live in hope anyway). And if you’re particularly organised, you’ll probably be going through your wardrobe to find out what kit is still good from last year, and what’s finally due for an appropriate send off.
To get you in the mood for some action between the race tape, and to highlight a couple of options for those in need of fresh kicks, the following review is a head-to-head feature on two of Shimano’s top-tier SPD mountain bike shoes, which I’ve been riding with for the past 18 months.
Imaginatively called the XC7 and XC9, these shoes sit very much at the XC end of Shimano’s off-road footwear range. They’re largely based on their road counterparts, which are called…wait for it…the RC7 and RC9. The uppers are pretty similar, but the SPD-compatible soles and sticky Michelin rubber tread are not.
While the XC7 is available in two colour options, the XC9 is available in three. Selling for £299.99, the XC9 is the more expensive option too, coming in at almost double the price of the XC7, which retails for £159.99. Funnily enough, they aren’t actually any lighter though – despite Shimano’s claimed weights. Confirmed weight for the XC9 is 786g for the pair, compared to 730g for the pair of XC7s (both size 45, weighed without cleats).
Both test shoes have been used for a mixture of XC racing, trail riding, commuting and cyclocross racing. I’ve ridden with them through all the weathers, from 38°C rides in Australia, through to cold, grueling deep-winter trudges in Calderdale where they’ve been wrapped up with waterproof overshoes.
So how do they stack up against each other, and which one should you get? Read on for my thoughts on the Shimano XC7 and XC9 shoes.
The XC7 comes in a broader range of sizes, covering an EU38 through to an EU50. The XC9 has it trumped on options though, with half sizes available from EU37 through to EU48, which will appeal to riders who are particularly fussy on fit.
Speaking of which, I found both the XC7 and XC9 shoes true to size. Though Shimano’s cycling shoes have wavered in their fit over the years, lately it seems to have settled somewhat. Like the ME7 trail shoe and AM9 gravity shoe I’ve tested previously, the same size 45 (UK 10.5) proved to be right for length in both the XC7 and XC9. Being race shoes however, it’s worth noting that the fit is much tighter overall. They have a lower volume with the uppers hugging your feet more snugly, and this means there’s far less room for wearing thick winter socks compared to the aforementioned options.
I will point out that the shoes I’ve been testing are the standard size option, which has a narrow gauge last with a slightly pointier toe. However, both the XC7 and XC9 are available in a ‘Wide’ last. If wearing thicker socks is a priority for you, or you’re simply blessed with broader members than me, then make sure you seek out the higher volume ‘Wide’ option.
Unlike previous Shimano XC shoes, neither of these is heat-mouldable, though that doesn’t seem to be an issue since the fit is so comfortable. For further fine-tuning, the footbeds in the XC9 feature two different arch inserts. Personally, I appreciated the stiffer support provided by the red ‘High’ inserts, and they meant I’d be less likely to spend extra cash on aftermarket footbeds if I was chasing further support. The XC9 footbeds also feature additional venting holes, and a silver-ion treatment to keep the stink at bay.
The XC7 features a single BOA IP-1 ratchet dial and pulley system for adjusting tension over the upper. To take the shoes off, you lift the buckle away from the shoe until you hear a ‘click’, then the pulley will release the cable. To tighten, you push the ratchet dial down into the shoe till it clicks again, then wind the dial clockwise. A single Velcro strap sits over the ball of the foot to provide further security. In use the dial is super simple to use, and having just the one dial control the tension over most of the foot makes for easy on-bike adjustments.
In comparison, the XC9 skips the Velcro strap in favour of two BOA dials, providing further scope for fine-tuning with the micro-ratchet system. The two-piece upper is also different on the XC9, being made from a softer and thinner microfiber that feels luxurious and soft. There’s no tongue on the XC9, but the upper is pre-curved in a way that sees it overlap your feet. Combined with the extra adjustability, the XC9 takes the cake when it comes to fit and feel. It’s an extremely comfortable shoe that feels very light, pressure-free, and flexible over the top. It’s also physically slimmer than the XC7, and I’ve found that’s led to less crank rub too.
A further point of difference between the two shoes is sole stiffness. Whereas the XC9 gets a full carbon fibre sole that’s rated to 11 on Shimano’s sole stiffness index, the XC7 gets a carbon-reinforced nylon sole that drops stiffness down to a 9. The difference is noticeable, but in practice neither is necessarily better than the other – it simply boils down to what you’re after.
The added flex through the toe and heel on the XC7 makes it the better choice for general XC and trail riding, where you’re likely to be hoisting your bike over gates and walls. The added give through the toe box makes it a more comfortable shoe to walk around in, and I also found it to be much more forgiving while trudging through the mud in a cyclocross race.
The XC9 does feel much stiffer, and that provides a super solid platform for stamping on top of small-bodied XC pedals like the Crank Brothers Eggbeater. Having gotten used to using bigger pedals and thicker, trail-oriented shoes of late, I found the stiffness of the XC9 a little intense to begin with. My feet would feel pretty achy and beat-up after smashing around a race course on a hardtail, since there isn’t a lot of damping between the pedals and your tootsies. It didn’t take much time to get used to it though, and before long I grew to appreciate the added stiffness, which makes the XC9 feel absolutely rock-solid when hammering up the climbs. If you’re serious about racing, you’ll appreciate that nice and stiff sole.
Speaking of climbing, both shoes feel secure when lifting hard on the pedals, and that comes down to the snug fit and one-way grip fabric that lines the back of the heel cup. There is more movement with the XC7 though, since it lacks any nylon reinforcements around the outside of the heel. In comparison, the XC9 gets a nylon heel cup that extends underneath through the arch of the shoe. This helps to cup and stabilise your heel, minimising foot-roll in the process. It works in tandem with the stiff carbon sole to give the XC9 a very firm and reassuring grasp on your feet.
One of my favourite aspects of both the XC7 and XC9 shoes is the use of a proper rubber outsole. A significant upgrade over the plastic tread used on older XC shoes, the addition of soft Michelin rubber provides a welcome boost in traction for walking around off the bike, and scrambling up climbs. Traction is surprisingly good in most conditions, though shiny wet rocks will still see them slipping, so don’t assume they’ll hold onto everything.
The tread itself is sparse and low-cut, with the XC9 being particularly minimalist with its triangular-shaped blocks. The two flat panels that sit either side of the cleat area provide a smooth and stable platform between shoe and pedal body, so there’s less chance of interference when clipping in. And thanks to the rubber lining the entire outsole including the arch, if you’re not clipped in, there’s still something for the pedals to hold onto if you have to put a foot down during those brief (but wild!) moments. That said, the XC9 does lose out to the XC7 when it comes to all-out grip, since there is more exposed carbon and nylon on its outer sole.
After over a year’s worth of riding, both shoes are starting to show signs of age, though the XC9 is definitely worse for wear. The softer upper is more susceptible to nicks and cuts, with the outside of one of the shoes having taken a particularly foul slash after my foot slipped down a piece of granite.
The rubber tread blocks have also worn down quite a bit, which is exacerbated by more time spent walking around on pavements and bitumen. Unfortunately the tread isn’t replaceable like it would be on a SIDI shoe, so if you do wear through the rubber then you’re pretty much SOL. Given the price of the XC9 in particular, it’s worth considering these as serious training and race-day only kicks, rather than an everyday shoe.
Though the stiffer fabric on the XC7 isn’t quite as comfortable, it is tougher, and the shiny and non-dimpled finish means they shed mud really well. I’ve put these shoes through some pretty horrible conditions, and all they need is a brief wipe down with some water and a rag to get them looking nice and fresh again.
All the BOA dials have continued to work throughout testing, though the quick release function can get a bit sticky as dirt and muck gets into the ratchet mechanism. Sometimes I’ll have to manually unwind each ratchet to take the shoes off. The nice aspect is that the ratchets are serviceable and replaceable, with a tiny T6 torx key required to pull them apart and give them a clean. Though I haven’t busted a cable on either shoe, I think it would be worth investing in some replacement cables and ratchets to put in the gear bag – particularly if you’ve got a riding trip or a multi-lap race on the horizon.
So of the Shimano XC7 and XC9, which shoes would I recommend?
Well, unless you’re racing, the XC7 is no doubt the tougher and simpler shoe of the two options. It’s still comfortable and efficient, and even if it feels a little less secure, the added flex through the toe box means it handles off-the-bike excursions with less fuss and fumbling.
If you’re after ultimate comfort and stiffness though, then the XC9 is the pick of the two. At a penny less than three hundred quid, it is an ultra-premium pair of shoes, but the fit is like nothing else I’ve used before, and on long-distance events and races where you want as few distractions from the trail as possible, that comfort is worth its weight in gold.
|Product:||XC7 & XC9|
|Price:||£159.99 (XC7), £299.99 (XC9)|
|Tested:||by Wil Barrett for 18 months|